How much do you need to know about an industry to create a winning school website?
In a competitive field, it’s worth it to do your homework if you want to jump to the head of the class. The point is that you’re bound to get a failing grade unless you understand and create messages for distinct audiences.
What do I mean? Before you jump into designing, writing content, and developing the functionality of a website, it’s critical to know who you’re writing for—their demographics, psychographics, interests, values, and “pain points.” In the same vein, it pays to understand each industry’s competitive landscape has its own characteristics, such as the number and size of competitors, strengths and weaknesses, drivers, and barriers to entry. Without doing your homework, the school’s website’s messaging, content, and all the other crucial elements will be mediocre at best
Okay, enough with the school metaphors. Let’s see what this looks like.
Private Education School Websites: Considerations beyond the Corporate World
Yes, there was a reason for the school analogy and here it is.
What if you work in a sector outside of a typical for-profit company, such as an independent school? Well, it’s not much different than in the corporate world. The most pressing challenge for a private school is keeping enrollment full year after year.
A school website in this space needs to address the concerns of parents who are willing to pay many thousands of dollars to provide the best educational experience available for their children. It’s a highly competitive environment, with choices including residential versus day schools, religious schools, coed versus single-gender schools, interest-based schools, and so on.
Case in Point: Refreshing a Special Education School Website
Let’s get even more niche-specific by looking at one of our recent special education website clients. This independent residential special education school for boys is located on a beautiful campus in New Hampshire. Its maximum enrollment is 44 boys in grades 6-12 with severe emotional, behavioral, or academic challenges.
Believe it or not, this environment is even more complex than the larger family of private schools, with competition coming from all directions and students having a broad spectrum of education-related challenges. We can break down these issues in several ways, including the four below.
- Audiences must sift through a whopping 114 special education private schools in Massachusetts.
- If parents want a residential school, they need to sort through more than 63 residential therapeutic schools in New England (some single-gender, some coed).
- Boys-only SPED schools are especially competitive, with boys being twice as likely to be labeled with a learning disability and more than three times as likely to be called emotionally disturbed.
- Another source of competition is in-district programs offered by public schools, especially if the state won’t fund private school tuition.
Sounds confusing, right? Imagine the frustration of audiences sifting through this web of SPED schools to find just the right match. And there’s yet another layer to consider.
On the other hand, the special education school can set higher tuition rates for private payers—parents who don’t get tuition funded by the state. As a result, the school not only wants to increase enrollment overall. It also wants to increase private payers higher than its current level of 30%.
To make this happen, the new website needed more direct, compelling, value-based messaging for parents and families—and the Website needed to get found online to get seen when parents search for potential SPED schools for their children.
But wait, there are still other factors to consider.
Meeting Challenges beyond Enrollment—Modernizing with a New Identity
Let’s look at the situation in more detail.
First, the residential school needed to raise funds from donors for campus improvements. Second, the school’s out-of-the-way locations can make it challenging to attract SPED counselors and learning specialists. Third, in April of 2020, the special education school became the third therapeutic school under the wing of a larger child welfare agency. We were tasked with creating a look that was unique yet related to the overseeing organization. Finally, the site was old and clunky, plus there was no way for the staff to edit the copy on its own—making this key resource fall by the wayside.
How to Address the School’s Key Audiences.
We determined several elements that would appeal to all of the school’s audiences. These include being easy to use, relatable, relevant, and demonstrating how the program results in excellent outcomes for special needs children.
These overall elements also needed to be combined with messaging that addressed each audience’s pain points, information needs, and emotional state. We can break these down by audience as follows:
Create Trust with Parents.
Challenges for Parents:
Parents who are researching therapeutic schools can be agitated, confused, and frustrated. The stakes are high: their children have been failing in traditional school settings. Plus, they may be fighting for the public education system to pay for a therapeutic school—or be forced to pay the expensive tuition themselves. Finally, the process of identifying the right school is difficult in itself, involving coordination with the public school and state agencies, research, visits, conversations with staff, and more.
Message to Parents:
Founded more than 30 years ago, the school has demonstrated that it provides a setting where children like yours can thrive and have educational successes. We understand the pressures that come with struggling to improve your child’s wellbeing and setting a path to a brighter future; we will guide you through the process in a caring way.
Create Awareness among Referrers.
Challenges for Referrers:
Referrers have a list of therapeutic schools that they recommend to current schools and families as appropriate. It’s their job to understand each school’s profile and the population they serve. Sometimes, however, it’s hard for them to find appropriate schools that have open spaces and need to find additional options.
Messages to Referrers:
If you don’t know about us, we welcome you to learn about the services we offer, the quality of our program, and the professionalism of our staff. We have 30+ years of experience interacting effectively with referrers like you.
Attract High-Quality Educators and Staff.
Challenges for Educators and Staff:
Many educators need a change, especially if they’ve been in a difficult urban environment or are otherwise unhappy in their current setting. Perhaps they don’t feel challenged or lack the support they need to succeed and grow.
Messages to Educators and Staff:
We are a high-quality school where we treat our staff, counselors, and educators in the way they deserve. It offers a peaceful location away from the complexities of an urban lifestyle, yet it’s only a two-hour drive from Boston. Our staff is committed to excellence and positive interactions with students and their families.
Build a donor base.
Challenges for Donors:
There are so many philanthropic options out there, including all the ways to improve the lives of special needs children. They wonder exactly how their funds will be used and what kind of results they can expect. They want to be respected and receive ongoing communication about improvements to the school and how the effects of their contributions.
Messages to Donors:
When you give to our school, you’ll be part of an organization that has proven time and again that it helps special needs children thrive. We regularly communicate with donors about news and progress, and you can be confident that your contributions will be used effectively. We appreciate everything our donors do for us; we couldn’t do it without you!
Meeting School Website Criteria
You might wonder about how we went about solving challenges to upgrading the school’s website.
We started with a website that looked old, uncared for, and failed to keep up with the competition. Further, no one had been actively updating it, in part because they didn’t have access to editing the content. The first objective was to create a modern, future-looking site, one that school’s staff would be able to modify as needed. We accomplished this by choosing to build the site using WordPress.
An even more pointed situation was that they had lost their domain, Wediko.com, and needed to purchase a new one. We walked them through the red tape and succeeded in registering a new domain name, which would be instantly recognizable as a school for those searching on Google.
Other criteria were also important for us to meet:
In addition to matching the feel of the larger child welfare organization, we also needed to incorporate a newly created logo and video to tell the school’s story.
Sticking to User-Friendly Elements:
With emotional parents and referrers who were often swamped with cases, the navigation needed to be easy to use. Likewise, content needed to be easy to read and digest.
Creating the Right Look and Feel:
The look and functionality needed to be modernized, with a family-friendly look designed to build trust. The site also needed to build credibility in the school’s ability to provide an individualized, second-to-none educational experience for its student population. For example, educational accreditation and therapeutic organization logos would be highly visible.
Share a Meaning Vision and Positive Outcomes:
Content, provided by the client, includes relatable, personal content—such as photos, testimonials, and success stories.
A Clean Process for a Modern School Website
The project ran smoothly from beginning to end. The designer created two mockups, each with a homepage and interior page, giving the client the option of two jump-off points, which could be adjusted to meet the client’s preferences.
Looking at navigation and content, we made changes to engage all audiences and give the site a clean, open look. The new design, functionality, and audience-specific messaging brought the four-page site up to 10 pages.
A school website for the future
When developing a new website—a SPED school, corporation, or non-profit—refreshing an outdated, requires addressing many considerations, including the organization’s goals, audiences, messaging, look and feel, and the ability to maintain the site. A positive attitude is also important, with the interactive designer and client teams working cooperatively. With all the right elements in place, we created an opportunity for this school website to get to the head of the class.